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Pizza 101

13 December 2005
Pizza 101

Chefs share basic techniques for the ever-popular pies built on Italian tradition and American ingenuity.

This article first appeared in the 1 November 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

In the kitchen, chefs approach the combination of crisp crust and saucy toppings as a blank canvas, a multipurpose platform, a creative medium of endless possibilities.

On menus at top-shelf restaurants, neighborhood joints and college cafeterias alike, it simply is called pizza.

Chefs and diners find common ground, though, in their enduring affection for this foodservice favorite.

"What makes pizza the perfect food is its simplicity. It's a universal way of delivering flavor," says Peter Reinhart, chef on assignment for Providence, R.I.-based Johnson & Wales University and author of "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza" (Ten Speed Press, 2003). "Pizza is extremely versatile, and the definition is as flexible as the number of ways to prepare it."

Better than half a century has passed since the Italian classic found favor in America, but operators still hone the art of creating the perfect pie.

"The baker's role is the X factor," Bianco says. "Making pizza is not about getting Cliffs Notes from another chef; it's having your own idea of what your objective is and how to get there."

From Bottom to Top

The voyage starts at the bottom. Sauces and toppings yield layers of flavor, but great pizza starts with crust that can hold its own. Scratch-made on site or purchased from vendors, most doughs rely on varying ratios of flour, water, yeast and salt. Some use oil for additional tenderness and moisture; others add sugar for color and the faintest hint of sweetness, or perhaps a handful of ground polenta for rustic crunch.

The most crucial steps in the dough's preparation are fermentation and proofing, which allow yeasty flavor to develop and deepen. Pizza makers often mix dough a day ahead, though for many the morning of service is time enough.

At San Francisco's recently opened Pizzeria Delfina, husband-and-wife team Craig and Anne Stoll's offerings are inspired by Neapolitan pizza, characterized by a thin crust with puffed, blistered edges. The restaurant's deck oven yields more crunch than Naples' wood-fired versions, but his patrons prefer the crispness, says Executive Chef Craig Stoll.

"Pizza in Naples can be pretty soft," he says. "It really is a knife-and-fork dish, and there are different camps in terms of what people like."

Pizzeria Delfina's six regular pies stay close to tradition, but creativity is revealed in pasta-themed pizza specials such as carbonara, featuring pancetta, leeks and eggs, and amatriciana, with guanciale (dry-cured pork jowl), caramelized onions, pecorino and hot peppers.

Chicago trattoria Scoozi! takes a different approach to crust, menuing eight varieties of cracker-thin, Roman-style pizza made from dough that includes pastry flour, which produces a more-tender crust than all-purpose flour. The dough is dryer than Neapolitan formulas, with less tear, stretch and chewiness, says John Chiakulas, corporate executive chef with Chicago-based multiconcept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

"A key suggestion is to not overtop thin pizzas," he says. "We also don't put a lot of toppings in the core of the pizza because gravity will naturally pull the ingredients to the center."

Top That!

Ever since Wolfgang Puck reinvented the classic pizza pie at Spago in West Hollywood, Calif., in the early 1980s, nearly anything is fair game for toppings. Chiakulas' advice: Have fun and use what you know.

"If you have favorite ingredients, they'll probably be great on a pizza," he says.

Among Scoozi! specialties are four white pizzas, in which crusts are brushed with roasted garlic rather than tomato sauce and then topped with such ingredients as smoked chicken, caramelized onions, fontina cheese and fresh basil. Other white pizzas use herb-infused olive oil as the base.

Seasonal toppings such as locally grown corn and roasted-pumpkin purée crown grilled pizzas in dollops rather than uniform spreads at Al Forno, a casual Italian restaurant in Providence, R.I., run by Chef-owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon.

"Layering the whole pizza would make it soggy," says Executive Chef and Chief Operating Officer Brian Kingsford. "This way you get a nice balance in your mouth: sweetness, acidity, saltiness."

At 15-unit Treviso, Italy-based Piola, whose locations include New York City and Miami, each unit offers a lineup of 60 thin-crust pizzas selected by local managers from a worldwide menu of 200 options. Ingredients reflect the far-flung locales where founders Stefano and Dante Carniato have grown their company.

Selections such as the Siciliana, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovies and capers, reflect Piola's Italian roots, while creations such as the Rio de Janeiro-featuring chicken, catupiry (a creamy Brazilian cheese) and parsley-were the outgrowth of South American expansion.

All toppings are prepared daily on premise; some are baked in brick ovens atop pizzas and others such as arugula, fresh tomatoes, Parma ham and speck added just before service.

A Little Saucy, a Little Cheesy

Although fresh and seasonal are guiding principles for many recipes, operations including Piola and Al Forno rely on canned tomatoes-imported or domestic-for standard pizza sauces. Chefs sometimes lend their own spins with additions such as garlic, onion, wine, herbs and seasonings.

- Chef-owner Eddie Bernal cooks chopped Roma tomatoes (grown hydroponically out of season) with crushed, canned tomatoes to infuse pizza sauce with fresh, natural flavor at 34th Street Café in Austin, Texas.

The sauce is lightly brushed on crusts for color and acidity, joining toppings such as venison sausage, bell peppers, Romano and goat cheeses and red-pepper flakes.

At Jonathan's American Grille in Jenkintown, Pa., Executive Chef Gerald Dougherty says lightly simmering canned, whole tomatoes with sautéed garlic, onion, basil and thyme before running the mixture through a food processor brings fresher mouth appeal to sauce for the menu's brick-oven pizzas. Each of six varieties features fresh mozzarella or shredded, whole-milk cheese.

Because fresh mozzarella's high moisture content can lead to soggy crusts, Dougherty pats the cheese dry after slicing it into medallions that easily melt in the 500F oven. Like many chefs, he augments the shredded mozzarella he buys, adding Asiago and provolone for greater flavor dimension and variety.

Non-tomato-based sauces such as Jonathan's basil pesto continue to grow in popularity across foodservice segments. Among eight options at four-unit Bene Gourmet Pizza in Eugene, Ore., are roasted red pepper, tomatillo and Thai peanut; choices at Fairport, N.Y.-based Great Northern Pizza Kitchen's five restaurants include barbecue and Buffalo wing sauce.

Pump Up the Volume

Creating the perfect harmony of crust, sauce and toppings becomes an even greater challenge in high-volume settings such as campus foodservice or takeout- or delivery-heavy concepts.

Chef-owner Waldy Malouf of New York City's Beacon, where pizza plays a minor menu role, had to modify both recipe and method to meet heavy demand at recently opened Waldy's Wood-Fired Pizza & Penne. For pies that travel better and hold heat longer (40% are carryout), whole-wheat flour was added to the dough for a touch more flavor and thicker crust. Prior to the lunch rush, crusts are par-baked. Plans to sell slices were scrapped in favor of kitchen-friendly half-pies.

"There definitely was a learning curve," says Malouf, whose "evolved pizzeria" also offers an updated take on the condiment counter where diners customize pizzas with an array of olives, infused oils, seasonings and Parmesan cheese. They also can cut their own basil, rosemary and oregano from small plants using mini garden shears tethered to the counter.

Volume takes on even greater meaning at Iowa State University in Ames, where more than 30 different pizzas are served at the 26,000-student campus' retail, catering and residential dining operations. Every recipe includes individual cook times and temperatures for the variety of ovens at various campus sites: wood-burning, conveyor and convection.

Executive Chef Karla Boetel searched to find the best ready-to-use, frozen dough, selecting a vendor that properly perforates each sheet to ensure even rising without excessive air bubbles. For student favorites such as pepperoni or meat lover's (loaded with cheese, sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, hamburger and bacon bits), canned pizza sauce fits the bill; canned pesto and Alfredo are ready to use as well.

"When you're trying to please large numbers of people, you have to be careful about acidity and spiciness of sauces," says Boetel, who holds regular tastings with staff and students when making new selections.

Though sauces and meats arrive ready to use, vegetables are delivered twice a week and chopped fresh in kitchens for quality reasons, a process also mandatory at Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's.

"Any time you cut vegetables, the shelf life starts running out because they have such high water content," says Dana Tilley, vice president of research and development/quality management for the 2,900-unit chain.

The company uses premade dough-refrigerated but not frozen-that operators proof on site as part of a slow fermentation process to develop Papa John's signature flavor. Once ready, the dough is hand stretched and layered with toppings and a proprietary cheese blend. Sauces are fresh-packed, canned within hours of being picked rather than reconstituted from concentrate.

For its just-debuted Papa's Perfect Pan Pizza, built atop a thick, square crust designed to hold piles of toppings, the company developed a hearty new sauce dubbed "robusto," studded with chunks of tomato and heavily seasoned with garlic, basil and oregano.

Pizza Production

Tradition may point to wood-burning ovens as the best means to prepare perfect pies, but today many equipment options are at hand.

  • At Wynn Las Vegas' Corsa Cucina, Executive Chef Stephen Kalt loves the delicacy and smoke-tinged flavor imparted by his wood-fired grill. He stretches dough on oil rather than flour to avoid sticking.
  • A red-hot, preheated pizza stone that remains in the standard commercial oven throughout service is the secret to Chef-owner Eddie Bernal's crisp, savory pizzas at 34th Street Café.
  • Like many large pizza concepts, Papa John's uses ovens that supply heat from above and below as pies move through on a conveyor belt. Toppings are layered on the crust before the cheese to avoid drying out in the intense, forced-air heat.
  • Staff starts building the fire in Scoozi!'s wood-burning oven at least two hours before service to let the soot and smoke burn off before cooking begins. Pizzas are ready quickly, so harder, thicker toppings must be precooked.
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